Behind Kazakhstan Unrest, the ‘Strongman’s Dilemma’

It is a clear reminder to the world’s strongman autocrats that leaving the workplace is extremely dangerous.

Chilly War’s end resulted in the collapse of 70 percent of administrations run by strongmen, according to one data set.

It does not matter if the chief leaves freely or involuntarily, dies in the workplace, or retires to a rural home; the pattern holds regardless.

As was the case in 1975 in Spain with the death of Francisco Franco, this paved the path for a democracy to take root. It is more common for a cycle of coups, civil wars, or another violent conflict to result, as in Egypt, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and many other places.

By all indications, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s longtime president, was aware of this drawback.

If any country like Singapore or Malaysia wants “a sustainable system put in place that will be secure against the backdrop of the coming of a brand new chief,” he said in an interview in 2014, citing Malaysia and Singapore as possible models.

With meticulous attention to historical precedent and careful staging, Nazarbayev orchestrated his demise, and his transition was closely observed in Moscow and other capitals across the world as a prospective model.

Kazakhstan’s demonstrations have not been sparked by his departure. Unrest and official indifference are characteristic of institutions that fail when a strongman leaves the scene, but the government’s flailing response is an exception.

Experts point out that it is difficult for strongmen to project a sense of stability. Instead, they undermine the basis of governance with their model of leadership, making themselves indispensable at the cost of abandoning a political system scarcely capable of governing however poised for infighting it may be.

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The Problem with Strongmen
It’s a tough call between autocrats like Mr. Nazarbayev who govern alone from atop a mountain and others that rule in the interests of larger collectives like Cuba or Vietnam.

To maintain a balance between a nation’s various factions, ruling elites, security providers, and army brass they must ensure that each has enough power and spoils to keep them loyal, but not so powerful as to challenge them.

Strongman-led regimes are more authoritarian and corrupt because of this. Furthermore, their executives are constantly fixated on possible adversaries, be it a regional boss who has become too fashionable or a security firm with much autonomy.

Nazarbayev, like many other leaders, shuffled his authority and sold or demoted deputies to keep things stable during his 29 years in power.

Stifling rising stars, hollowing down energy facilities, and filling institutions with supporters (usually chosen because they’re too weak to pose a threat) renders the federal government unable to stand on its own.

What some students refer to as the “strongman’s dilemma” is the question of how to ensure that your successor does not become your opponent, and how to leave authorities that can outlive the chief without becoming superfluous and vulnerable.

By cultivating friendships, some people try to resolve this issue. Azerbaijan and Syria, where dead autocrats handed power to their sons, are two examples of unusual triumphs that followed this model.

As a result, children are often unable to secure the necessary support and hence invite their peers into the fight. There is only one non-monarchy that has entered the third era of household autocracy. This is North Korea.

A similar drawback results from the appointment of “flunkies” or other subordinates who are only controlled.

However, the risk of a long-term job is higher. Rivals and even supporters may be motivated to capture energy before another person can take it first if the chief’s health begins to deteriorate. In a coup, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was overthrown at the age of 93.

As a result, despots tend to hide their health difficulties from the public eye to avoid any appearance of fragility that would trigger a rush to replace them. It’s also why the disappearance of a dictator, especially a despised one, tends to generate frenzied rumors as locals fear the consequences of an absence of power.

It is the chief who holds it all together when strongman rule is successful. On the other hand, any keystone can serve as the best weak point. As a result, the entire structure crumbles. As a rule of thumb, this is what happens.

According to the academic Andrew Nathan, “the second of change has nearly always been a second of disaster,” he writes, “including purges or arrests, factionalism, frequently bloodshed, and opening the door to a disorderly intervention into the political means of the people or the army.”

Kazakhstan has a lesson to share.
This conundrum has lingered over the former Soviet Union in particular, where autocrats have held power for twice or three times as long as the average strongman, or a few decades.

However, a longer reign entails a lengthier decline, both for the king and his people, when they eventually leave the throne.

As a result, many post-Soviet leaders have extended their time limits. It wasn’t long ago that Vladimir V. Putin of Russia announced that he will be 83 years old by the year 2036.

Autocrats are finding it more difficult to switch off their power as time goes on, and the consequences may be disastrous if such a crisis were to strike.

A Michigan State University scholar of authoritarianism, Erica Frantz, says that if the chief’s departure is forced, the regime’s chances of survival are slim.

That’s more than just a problem for tyrants. More and more countries are seeing leaders like this, with some degree of convergence between calcifying dictatorships and backward democratic institutions. There are at least two in the center of Europe. The cult of personality built by Xi Jinping in China, where he has laid the groundwork for a lifelong rule, is considered by some experts to be an example.

More people are at risk from a catastrophically botched succession as more of the world is brought under this system’s control.

As a result, Mr. Nazarbayev appeared to have addressed this problem by stepping aside as a loyalist formally replacing him. In theory, he was supposed to remain present enough to keep the system together, but absent enough to allow it to crystallize around a new order.

As Dr. Frantz has found, even in the rarest of situations, new governments typically fail within five years of their establishment.

As an example, she cited Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro has faced ever-increasing issues since succeeding Hugo Chávez in 2013.

A new case of this has emerged in Kazakhstan. It casts doubt on Mr. Nazarbayev’s ability to answer and raises the possibility that the problem of strongman succession may likewise be unresolvable.

Even if President Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019, it’s safe to suppose that the crisis he didn’t avert will be just as closely monitored in palace drawing rooms from Moscow to Manila.

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